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The Blind People and the Elephant, Alternate Ending

You probably know the Indian parable of the Blind People and the Elephant (Ud 6.4), where a group of folks who are blind-since-birth are brought together ’round an elephant. I propose a different ending. What if, instead, the blind people figure it out by working together?

You probably know the Indian parable of the Blind People and the Elephant (Ud 6.4), where a group of folks who are blind-since-birth are brought together ’round an elephant. Each person is instructed to touch some part of the elephant: the trunk, an ear, a tusk, one side, a leg, the tail, etc.

When asked “What is an elephant?” each person describes the elephant as they experience it. The person on the trunk says “An elephant is like a hose”. The person touching the tusk says, “An elephant is like a pipe”. The person on the leg says, “An elephant is like a column.” The guy back at the tail says “An elephant is like a broom.” (1)

The blind people get into an argument; “An elephant is like this! An elephant is not like that!” (2) Things escalate and they end up in a fist fight. (Which must have been something to see.)

Apparently this story was well known in India; I’ve heard another version where a wise king arrives on the scene and corrects the misunderstanding, saving the blind people from their ignorance.

But I propose a different version. What if the blind people say, “Wait a minute. Everybody chill for a sec. What do you think an elephant is like? And what do you think an elephant is like? Okay, well here’s what I think an elephant is like.”

In this way, the people don’t end just with fighting. And they don’t need to be saved by some omniscient guru. Instead, by calming down, by listening to each other, they are able to come to an understanding of what an elephant is like by working together(3)

With friendliness!


(1) I’ve taken liberties modernizing the descriptions.

(2) Translation by Stephen Batchelor in After Buddhism.

(3) This story is still problematic: equating blindness with ignorance, and also did anybody ask the elephant what he thought about all this touching? Topics for another essay…

13 replies on “The Blind People and the Elephant, Alternate Ending”

Shannon, thanks for a fun exercise! You’ve inspired another alternate ending. Each blind man was seeking a direct experience of “elephant”. What if the blind men rotated positions, so each experienced what each of the others had experienced? No need to rely on another’s say-so.

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Yes! Walk a mile in my shoes…

And yet, I’m not sure it is always so simple, right? We cannot always just change positions to experience the thing. I’m thinking of a tall white guy from SoCal trying to understand what it’s like to grow up as a black woman in downtown Baltimore.

Maybe we cannot experience some things and we have to listen and trust the other to describe it as best they can.

Thanks for engaging! I almost didn’t write this one because I thought it would be too… I dunno… simple? I appreciate the positive feedback. :)

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By the way, I L-O-V-E your creativity, your intelligence, and your courage. Thank you for being a wonderful role model. More, please.

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<3 <3 <3

Thank _you_ for giving a darn. I feel so lucky to be able to have conversations with people about this stuff. :)))

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I appreciate that you thought about the elephant. Rather like what I always thought about Shrödinger’s cat – the darn CAT knows what’s going on, doesn’t it?!
But… How do you know the elephant was a he? ;-p
It never ends, friends…
Mega-metta x L

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Oh. I thought it was a “he” because of the pipe-like tusks. Do female elephants have big tusks? I thought they only have smaller ones.

Edit: I actually paused before writing “he” because I prefer “they” these days. But I thought, big-tusked elephant is a male elephant.

Unless what you’re saying is that the elephant may not identify as a he? In which case, fair enough. They it is. :)))

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Luke, altho I’ve been a card carrying feminist for 50+ years, I’ve only recently been made aware of sensitivies to pronouns. To my 75 year old ears, “he” doesn’t sound like “male only”. Thank you for the reminder to be more pronoun alert. In the 1950s, my elementary school teachers would have failed me for using “they” and “them” to refer to a singular. The pronouns are a challenge for this oldster. As my 99 year old mother says, ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope.” I know your comment about pronouns wasn’t aimed at me, but I felt the sting because my habit is to use “he” as the default for both genders – or, better, for all genders.

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LOL! Luke, Shannon, and Sharon are acting out the elephant parable. Is it a he or a she or a they? Ha Ha Ha. Great fun. Thanks for playing with me. [ps, Shannon. I love your come-back about tusk size. You’re right, as always.]

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Yes, this is a wonderful story, and the ending you propose sounds absolutely lovely indeed.

:-)

The challenge is…dust.

As the sutta says…”There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma”.

And that’s nice, I count on that, I got dusty eyes!

One of the several questions that occurred to me regarding this was … what about the folks with lots of dust? Do they go in a box with a bottle of Visine? But really… what about those with lots of dust?

Also, why does dust in my eyes impair my hearing?

This goes to perspective … our perspective cannot be realized, our “view” is clouded, obscured, rendered untenable, blocked even. It’s the same in each image…challenged vision yields an inability to hear/listen. Which goes to compassion, vulnerability, openness, love.

But back to “little dust”. Why “little dust”? I see behavior, I hear voices that, from my perspective, are the product of lots of dust, mud, stones even, yielding not only “different” perspectives, but toxic perspectives, perspectives that result in much more human suffering much less “human flourishing”.

The question for me then is…how do I pretend that I think a perspective which increases human suffering, hinders incredibly “human flourishing” (whatever the heck that is), is not toxic, that it doesn’t cause pain in others, and isn’t a retardation/blockage with regard to liberation…how do I pretend that perspective is wholesome or should even be considered?

Thanks very much.

Be well,

Scott.

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Hi, hi. :)))

“a perspective which increases human suffering … how do I pretend that perspective is wholesome or should even be considered?”

My initial response, and I’m sure it will evolve as we talk about it, but my initial response is that _of course_ we should not pretend an unskillful perspective is skillful.

Along with words like “unskillful”, you’ve used words like “toxic”. IMHO, if we try to engage in conversation with someone by saying, “Your views are toxic”, I don’t believe we are going to get anywhere in our understanding or in theirs.

Will you oblige me a moment on a pivot?

Let’s look at the difference between causality and conditionality. (Think Dependent Origination/Conditionality.)

Given a particular outcome, for our purposes a bad outcome, how does “cause” compare to “conditions”?

A person throws a brick through a window. What is the cause of the broken window? The brick hitting it. The person throwing the brick at the window caused the window to break. Pretty clear. Cut and dry. Who’s responsible here? Who’s at fault? The person who threw the brick at the window. What do we do? We punish the person who threw the brick.

Conditionality says, hang on a sec. Sure, that person threw a brick and it hit the window and the window broke. But we’re not done. _Why_ did the person throw the brick? They were angry. _Why_ were they angry? What are all the conditions bearing on this person’s life? Around the structure of the society they were brought up in? About how they feel in the world right now?

I may disagree with a person’s behavior, but if I just throw them in jail, I am doing nothing to address the underlying conditions that led to the behavior. I am not stopping the next person and the next person and the next person.

Causality says, you are at fault. You are a bad person. You go to jail.

Conditionality says, the conditions in which you are operating do not lead to your flourishing. You are in a society that is structurally designed to suppress you. Let’s fix the system.

Conditionality DOES NOT condone breaking the window. But it does recognize that this person is not “bad” or “evil”. Rather, the conditions in their life were such that the outcome of their behavior is bad. It encourages rehabilitation and reparation.

Pivoting back to your comment:

Of course we don’t pretend that unskillful views are skillful. But if we don’t take the time to listen to where that person is coming from, how can we possibly hope to inspire a shift?

No matter how painful it is to hear, if we cannot listen to what others say about the conditions that lead to a view, we cannot be skillful in our response. We cannot move them towards a more skillful view. Our unskillful response merely cements that person more fully in their unskillful view.

Or so I think.

Fire when ready. ;)

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